RVs are rolling off assembly lines at a pace faster than any time since before the Great Recession. That’s positive news for Elkhart County’s economy.
For the sixth straight year, shipments of RVs increased over the previous year as more than 370,000 units were shipped to retailers around the country — the highest number in nearly a decade and a 5 percent jump over 2014.
That upward trend is crucial to the county’s overall economic health. The three largest employers in Elkhart County — Forest River Inc., Thor Industries Inc. and Drew Industries Inc. — are in the RV industry, an industry that directly employs more than 30,000 people in the region. That doesn’t count all the indirect jobs in restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and other businesses. These added jobs are part of the reason that the county’s unemployment rate stands at 3.6 percent, lower than the state’s rate and a full 1.4 percentage points below the national figure.
There is always a concern that the bottom could fall out of the RV industry and that Elkhart could once again see its unemployment rate skyrocket. But industry officials say they’re seeing some trends that indicate strong RV sales could continue for the foreseeable future.
Baby boomers are retiring at a pace of about 10,000 per day, and many of those retirees are purchasing RVs to spend their golden years on the road. Nearly 10 percent of people age 55 and over own an RV, so an aging population is good news for the industry.
What is more encouraging, however, is that more younger people are buying RVs and campers. While overall RV shipments were up 5 percent last year, the truck campers that are popular among young families and couples were up almost 10 percent; and shipments of travel trailers, also popular among young families on the go, rose 7.5 percent.
“We are seeing a trend of younger individuals wanting to be more active about camping,” a representative of Thor Industries told The Elkhart Truth. “We are not only seeing families interested in owning an RV, but also young couples who not only like to use them for camping but also for tailgating.”
Industry officials expect RV shipments to only slightly increase in 2016, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Small but steady annual increases in sales are preferable to big fluctuations that can skyrocket one year and plummet the next.
As always, there are legitimate worries about whether Elkhart County’s economy needs to be more diverse and whether enough is being done to reduce our reliance on the RV industry. But let’s save that discussion for another day.
Today, let’s salute the local manufacturers, their executives and their employees for having yet another stellar year.